Sealants are plastic resins that are placed on the chewing surfaces of teeth, usually back teeth, that have deep grooves and pits in them. They help to prevent decay on those surfaces by sealing the bacteria out of the grooves and pits and making these areas easier to keep clean. One of the most common areas for tooth decay is in these grooves on the back teeth that are too narrow for the tooth brush bristles to get to but not for bacteria to penetrate. They are simple to place, rarely require anesthetic because they are painless and only take a few minutes. The tooth is first cleaned and, on occasion, the grooves may be slightly widened with a specially designed drill that removes only a very slight amount of enamel to allow better access to the grooves. Then the sealant material is flowed into the pits and grooves and allowed to harden and bond to the tooth. A slight amount of adjusting and smoothing may be needed to make the sealant fit with the patients bite.
Sealants generally last several years and are checked by the dentist at each check-up visit. At times, they need to be repaired and/or replaced as they will wear out over time under normal chewing forces. They are very good at preventing decay on the chewing surfaces but some other parts of teeth can get decay that are not suitable for sealants, such as in between the teeth and therefore good oral hygiene including flossing between the teeth is necessary to prevent decay.
We usually recommend sealants for children and teens since tooth decay often starts soon after teeth grow into the mouth. It is necessary to place sealants before any decay starts or the decay will continue to spread under the sealant if it is “sealed in.”
Some adults can benefit from sealants as well, depending on their decay risk, decay history and the shape, position and groove pattern of their teeth. Some peoples’ teeth are harder to keep clean and are therefore at greater risk of decaying and these people would be good candidates for sealants.